For many years now, Chromecast has exsited as a simple, seamless way to get audio and video from a small-screen device up onto a larger screen. The basic premise is simple enough for many, but it leaves a few nagging issues for the end user to figure out on their own. With Chromecast as-is, you simply hit the cast button when it appears, select the screen or speaker you want the media to play on, and sit back to enjoy it.
In these sessions, the Chromecast hardware (a Chromecast dongle or Chromecast-enabled TV) is fetching the content, not your phone/tablet/laptop, so you can leave music or videos playing without worry of other personal activities encroaching on the playback. For instance, with YouTube, I can hit cast from my phone, see it on my TV, and go about whatever else I’d like to do on my phone while that playback is happening. The playback was initiated by my phone, but once the cast hand-off is made, the TV takes over and is responsible for delivering the content. It’s a great system.
There’s one big hangup, though, and that is playback control. Most often, when the time comes to pick another video, fast forward, or play/pause, picking up your phone and heading back to the app that began the casting session is enough to trigger some form of on-screen controls that you can use to take care of business. Sometimes, though, those controls don’t come up or the cast session is forgotten by the phone and you basically have a rogue video playing on your TV with no controls in sight. Sure, your TV’s remote can do some basic things, but not all TVs are wired this way and not everyone has this set up.
I’ve spoken with many users who opt to skip the Chromecast for something like a Roku in order to have the security of a quick, simple controller in their hand to make small playback controls easier to access. With Roku, you don’t have the ability to start a cast session from any device on your network, but it is a trade I know many have made. Though I still rock a Chromecast Ultra with no remote at home, I fully understand where people are coming from when they want that dedicated, in-hand, physical controller.
Introducing Cast Connect
Google quietly introduced Cast Connect a couple weeks ago and, frankly, we completely missed it. This new service makes a ton of sense given the new hardware that we all know Google is ready to release in the form of a Chromecast/Android TV hybrid device. That new dongle will act as a Chromecast when needed and still have a full-blown Android TV interface complete with a remote for the times when you want to just browse through content on the big screen.
With this new Cast Connect ability, app developers will be able to do something quite awesome with casting sessions, giving users a far more seamless experience when consuming content. Here’s how it works. When you take your phone out to watch a YouTube or Netflix video and then choose to cast it to the TV, instead of just being a simple cast session as we referred to earlier, this new Cast Connect session will actually open the video via the installed application on the Android TV device instead of just relying on a standard cast session. This means that once playback begins on the Android TV device, it can be completely controlled with that device’s remote just as if the playback had begun via the user interface on the TV itself.
It is a small change that will go a very long way in making cast sessions and native app watching sessions feel almost identical to the user. After all, for many viewers, they don’t care how the playback began, where it came from, and who’s responsible. They simply want it to play on the big screen and be able to control it with the remote in their hand regardless of where the video playback began. Cast Connect will deliver this ability for Android TV and will likely be a key differentiator for Google when their new dongle launches this year.
More and more this new device feels like it will be the absolute best of both worlds, offering the simplicity and flexibility of Chromecast with the UI and app ecosystem of Android TV. While I’ve argued in the past that Google nailed it with Chromecast and has been a bit lost with Android TV, I think the marriage of the two is going to create a media playback powerhouse that will be very difficult to compete with. Now, we just need to see it get released.